WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans pushed through a rule change Wednesday that will make it easier for them to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominees at a faster pace.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked what’s known as the “nuclear option” to slash the amount of time before a final vote on a nominee, from 30 hours to two hours, in certain circumstances. The change will affect nearly all executive branch nominees — excluding Cabinet-level posts and certain independent agencies — and US district court nominees.
The Senate voted 51–48 to adopt the changes for both sets of nominees Wednesday afternoon. Two Republicans voted with Democrats in opposing the the rule change, Sens. Susan Collins and Mike Lee.
The rule change is the latest chapter in a long, bitter partisan fight over nominations, particularly when it comes to lifetime appointments to the federal bench. Under Trump, Republicans have taken a series of steps aimed at easing confirmation for the president’s nominees, from getting rid of the filibuster for US Supreme Court nominees to moving appeals court nominees through over objections from home state senators.
The rule at issue concerns what happens when Democrats — or whichever party is in the minority — refuse to agree to hold a final vote on a nominee. That forces what’s known as a cloture vote. McConnell must file for cloture, and then wait a day for a vote; if he files for cloture on a Monday, the vote can’t happen until Wednesday. With a majority in the Senate, Republicans have the numbers to get through a cloture vote, but once they do, the previous version of the rules required an additional 30-hour debate period before a final vote.
Those 30 hours have been a major sticking point. With just two hours of debate on the clock now, Republicans will be able to confirm multiple nominees in a single day — likely three or four nominees, if senators stay into the evening — and bump up the number of nominees they can get through in a week.
For judicial nominees, the change would only apply to nominees to the district courts and the US Court of Federal Claims. The 30-hour rule would remain intact for the federal appeals courts and the Supreme Court.
There are 143 district court vacancies nationwide, and 56 nominees at various stages of the confirmation process for those seats. Of the current crop of nominees, 37 are waiting for a final vote in the Senate.
Democrats and liberal advocacy groups denounced the move as a power grab by McConnell and an effort to undercut the Senate’s role in vetting nominees, particularly judicial nominees up for lifetime appointments. They argued that this was the latest in a string of bad faith moves by Republicans, including holding up dozens of former president Barack Obama’s lower court nominees in his final two years, refusing to hold a hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland, and allowing Trump’s nominees to go ahead over objections from home state senators.
In remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer noted that Trump had gotten a record number of circuit court judges confirmed in his first two years in office — a fact that he said undermined the GOP’s argument that the rules were holding up the administration’s progress on nominations.
“With all undo haste, they want to pack the courts with partisan warriors, not impartial jurists. It’s outrageous,” Schumer said.
Republicans have countered that Democrats are abusing the 30-hour rule, citing examples of noncontroversial nominees where Democrats forced a cloture vote and lengthy debate period, then later voted in favor of the nominee. In a floor speech Wednesday, McConnell blamed Democrats, and Schumer specifically, with starting the rules-focused battle over nominees during the George W. Bush administration. He also pointed to former Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s decision in 2013 to invoke the nuclear option to effectively get rid of the filibuster for lower court nominees during a fight over Obama’s nominees to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.
“There’s nothing radical about this. You’re acting like it’s a sad day for the Senate. You want to pick a sad day for the Senate, go back to 2003 when we started filibustering the executive calendar and he started it,” McConnell said, appearing to point to Schumer. “That was a a sad day. This is a glad day. We’re trying to end the dysfunction on the executive calendar.”
The changes adopted by the Senate on Wednesday have some precedent. In 2013, there was a bipartisan agreement to temporarily reduce the post-cloture debate time from 30 hours to two hours for district court nominees. For other senior-level executive nominees, the resolution changed the debate time to eight hours.
Democrats argued that the current situation is different — that the 2013 changes were temporary, and that there was still an eight-hour period for executive nominees. Republicans countered that a more permanent change was needed.